Chapter 5: The White Walls Fall
The streets were growing quiet. The citizens of Pastrino were returning home, no doubt awaiting a warming supper after a hard day’s work. Being the height of summer, the sky was still light, despite the bell tower chiming out six times. While still light, the sky could hardly be called bright though as storm clouds were building above.
Lieutenant William Gapon observed all of this passively as he took to his patrol through the city. He was a tall, well-built man with short brown hair that descended into a flowing ponytail at the back. His face was bland, emotionless yet in no way hard and his brown eyes never ceased their slow study of their surroundings. His uniform was neatly pressed but had clearly seen wear.
Since becoming a lieutenant, he had been offered a paper intensive role in the castle but had turned it down without thought. The streets were in his blood, they were where the guards were really needed. So now he was head of city patrols, despite never having expressed any desire to lead.
He followed his usual path through the market then around past the church before meeting with a small group of guards beside the smithy’s forge. They greeted him and he nodded back.
“Been a quiet day, lieutenant. After the riot the other day, normal seems kinda dull,” muttered one of the younger guards.
Gapon smiled slightly. His voice was soft, almost poetic, but his language never strayed from the point. “So long as it stays uneventful tonight under my watch. You lads finished?”
“Aye, sir,” answered the youth. He was a stick of a man but Gapon knew him to be a good fighter. “A quick catch-up with the boys then some grub and a kip for me.”
“I’ll leave you to it then,” Gapon said with a salute before continuing on his way.
The clouds were growing darker above. Gapon frowned but showed nothing else at the prospect of a rainy night. He met with fewer people as he walked until only figures beyond windows were visible for the most part. A city like Pastrino would never have empty streets but most got the idea to be inside when those clouds decided to burst.
He turned a corner and stopped abruptly. He thought that he had seen something moving through the sky. Glancing between the rooftops and the snaking aquatud, Gapon scanned the darkening sky. Even as his brain worked to convince him that it had been a bird, the lieutenant saw the object again, hurtling back toward the ground. There was a sudden crash that shook the ground and stung his ears. Smoke or dust began to rise from the poor district of the city. It took a moment for Gapon to process what was happening. In that short time, another object tore through the sky. This time he could make out that it was a rock. There was another crash, closer this time.
“We’re under attack!” Gapon bellowed, repeating the words as loud as he could as he ran west toward the projectiles’ origins. His iron mace was held firmly in his hand as his feet pounded down the cobbles. His voice was growing hoarse already but still could hardly be heard over the destruction of stone as buildings and pathways were levelled. Those sounds alone were enough to drive the people from their houses in a panic to see what was happening.
“Prepare for battle! Get the children to safety! Fortify the streets!”
As Gapon ran, other guards formed up around him, as did many well-built civilians with farm equipment or other household weapons.
Men, women and children ran in the other direction, fleeing away from the west. Gapon grabbed onto one of the frantic men. “What is going on? Tell me what you’ve seen.”
The man looked around skittishly. “Bless my eyes, sir. There are monsters, awful creatures in black. They’re flooding into the city from the gaps in the wall. Sprites save us all.”
Releasing the man, Gapon cursed as another rock smashed into a building beside him, blasting him with rubble that knocked him to the ground. Through bleary eyes and ringing ears, the Lieutenant watched a sudden wave of black-clad figures charge out of a street and spread like oil across every pathway. They were bestial giants who growled and hissed like demons with each loping stride. Crude weapons were held in clawed hands.
Pushing through the pain, Gapon stood and grabbed his mace. The other guards were already in combat but the monsters ploughed through them as though they were unobstructed. Even as he sped toward the chaos, he watched one of the beasts cleave a guard clean in two with a single mighty swing of its axe.
“Disengage!” the Lieutenant ordered. “Pull back to the narrower streets. We can’t take them on in the open like this. Keep their movements in check!”
With those words he closed with the enemy, smashing his mace into a creature’s snout without slowing. Bone, tooth and gristle flew in a spray of blood. Another moved to hack him down but with his free hand, Gapon plunged a dagger into his attacker’s throat. It gurgled but continued its swing. Gapon was only just able to dodge.
Risking a glance behind him, Gapon saw men pulling back from the melee to seal off as many avenues into the heart of the city as was possible. Those men on the frontline had no option other than to stand and fight, hoping to buy their friends as much time as possible to prepare.
Gapon kicked at an armoured knee with all of his strength. It should have snapped any man’s leg but it barely made this warrior stumble. That tiny imbalance was all Gapon needed though to ram his mace into the terror’s gut then swing it upward into its chin. A shout was raised from somewhere behind him. It was just another sound amidst the screams and howls at first but distinct words began to filter through his mind.
“Draw. Pick your target. Release!” Sharp twangs cut through the grunts and clashes. Gapon felt sudden wind rush past his face. White feathered arrows slammed into the monsters’ ranks. Several beasts fell but many more continued to fight with shafts jutting from their thick hides. The order was repeated and more arrows sped past the defenders and into the attacking monsters.
Gapon grabbed the man beside him and shoved him back away from the combat. “Everyone back! Form up around the next ring. Fall back!”
The second that he heard another snap of bowstrings, Gapon turned and ran, sighting a contingent of archers atop of the nearby buildings and behind hastily erected barricades. A second of scanning the faces revealed to him Bow-Captain Kenroy Green. He directed his steps toward the barricade that the captain was positioned behind.
“Sir,” saluted the captain as Gapon jogged up to the barricade. Gapon nodded and Green continued his methodical nocking and releasing of arrows. He was a muscular man with short black hair and a thin moustache.
“What is the situation?” Gapon asked. The barricade was opened up for him and a few other guards and straggling civilians. He wanted to sit and regain his breath but there was no time with those beasts forcing their way forward with every step.
Green never looked away from his target. His movements were smooth and flowing. “The city is breached in multiple locations. These creatures are storming through all sectors. Nothing important was destroyed in the barrage but fires are spreading quickly. We have orders to retreat to the inner city.”
Holding back a choking sound, Gapon rounded on the man. “Retreat to the inner city? That is crazy. The main city would be lost within the hour. What good is protecting the castle if everything else in the city burns?”
“You know that and I know that but orders are orders. The Commander gave them to me himself,” Green said, spitting between shots. “The monsters were running through the city before we even knew what was happening. The city is already as good as lost. I’m here to help as many people escape to the castle as possible before our last defences are overrun.”
“But how could this happen?” stammered a young guard who had fought beside Gapon. His eyes were almost wild. “What are those things?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Gapon darkly. He looked to Green for an answer but the captain simply shook his head.
The monsters were charging the barricades now that all of their opponents had fled. They stamped over the bodies of their kin and humans alike, roaring harshly the entire time. Green released a final arrow then signalled for his men to retreat. The archers began a steady walk east, continuing to lay down suppressing volleys of arrows.
Gapon moved with them. He gritted his teeth at the prospect of abandoning the city to its fate but as Green had said, orders were orders. As lieutenant, Gapon knew that well. Hopefully they could make a stand at the tiered stone of the castle and keep those who had fled safe within.
Thunder rolled across the city in great, rumbling peals. The sounds were disjointed and varied but all somehow the same. Xion stood at his window, staring transfixed at the destruction beyond. Each crash shook the house and rattled the shelves and cupboards.
At first he had been terrified. Pastrino under attack, it seemed ridiculous. There had been no warning and the rain of death and the following tide of dark warriors had been swift and merciless. Fires burned everywhere and a constant symphony of screams echoed through the cramped structures. Fear had clutched tightly at his heart until he had his first clear look at the beasts.
“Could it really be? Forukks? I thought them lost to the pages of history.”
He stood in terrified fascination, watching the beasts ravish the city further down the hill. It would be a matter of minutes before they pillaged their way to his house. He did not move though. He watched; watched the Forukks kill those who stood against them but carried many more away back to the west. The Forukks had no need for prisoners. Xion’s only knowledge of the beasts confirmed that they lived to fight and only used humans as targets and food. This did not fit with their behaviour.
A sudden thought struck him. If the Forukks were taking prisoners, then presumably they would be taking them back into their own lands. The Shadow Land, Miankkuth. If Xion’s theory was correct, Miankkuth was were the weapon was hidden. Excitement flooded his body. It was a sensation that he had almost forgotten. This was perfect. He had finally been handed a method to fulfil his life’s work. Forcing down a smile, he seated himself at his desk and waited.
He hadn’t been there long when the monsters burst down his door. They trampled into his study then stopped at seeing him so full of calm and control. One spoke in its own guttural tongue and Xion knew enough to piece together its meaning: “He smells happy.”
“I am happy, Forukk,” Xion responded. The creatures grunted in surprise at his ability to understand them. “You are taking us to Miankkuth, correct?”
“Correct,” growled the same Forukk as before. Xion took him to be this group’s leader.
Xion gave a satisfied laugh. “Perfect. We have much to offer one another.”
Warm blood splashed across Lieutenant Gapon’s face. The warmth grew into a burning sensation which he ignored. His own blood dripped down his right arm which hung limply at his side. A solid wall of the hulking monsters pulsed at his front while the spiral structure of Pastrino’s castle rose up from the earth at his back.
Lines of bodies marked each place where the defenders had tried to hold the beasts off before retreating further back. They were like lines in the sand to mark the coming and going of the tide. Looking out beyond the battle, Gapon could see flames and smoke polluting the darkening sky.
“We can’t hold for much longer, Sir,” rasped a young captain who had forced his way to Gapon’s side.
Their orders were to hold these grounds at all costs, but the younger man was right. They were back on open ground, assailed at all sides by a stronger foe and with too few men who had any experience with battle. Nobody recruited after the Ghibok war had even seen real combat before this day, the young captain included. Orders were orders, but men’s lives rested on his decisions here. Damn it, he was a soldier not a leader. Let him die or live, just so long as he wasn’t responsible for the deaths of his men. If any of these men were to stand a chance of seeing dawn, they had to move.
“Sound the horns. Get the gate open and tell the men to get inside quick. We’ll only have a scant few minutes before they break through to join us. I want everyone in a defensive position and traps to be set up across every hallway.”
The captain saluted him. “As you command, sir.”
Gapon swallowed hard and brought his mace down upon the fingers of a monster. They splintered like matchsticks and the slick grey hatchet it wielded was dropped. Another guard rammed his sword through its throat, dispatching it before the lieutenant could swing again.
Sweat drenched him and his breath came in gulps. Muscles burned and his vision was growing blurry. He could not keep this pace up for much longer. The monsters were showing no signs of relenting either.
Horns blared, closely followed by the groan of the heavy wooden doors behind them opening. Men scrambled through as orderly as was possible. With each guard that left the line, the beasts pressed ever further. Gapon edged his way to the door, then as the last guard dived through he threw himself inside, crushing the hand of a monster with his mace that tried to pull itself past the door. A final burst of arrows through the gap ensured that no other monsters could gain entrance before the wooden slabs were firmly closed again.
Gapon took this moment of respite to regain his breath. Weapons could be heard hacking into the wood from the outside. It would only be a matter of time before they broke through.
“Stack what you can to block this side off. This will be our last stand. Let’s make it a good one,” the lieutenant began. He was on the verge of issuing more orders when a stern voice broke his chain of thought.
“You had orders to hold the grounds at all costs.” It was Commander Decole, a grizzled old man with white hair, a hard face and a greased beard and moustache. “Why then are you and your men inside?”
“It makes tactical sense. Outside we are nothing but another wall for them to break through, inside we stand a chance of beating them back.” Gapon answered, meeting the commander’s eyes with a level stare.
The commander shook his head. “All of this is wrong. It’s madness. If we’d had warning then we could have planned but half of the city was lost before we even knew what was going on. We have grown too soft over the years. It’s too late to fret over things now. We’re all dead. It’s just a case of how many of these beasts we can take down with us.”
An axe bit through the wood, revealing frantic silhouettes beyond. A snarling snout forced its way through the gap but was immediately withdrawn after an arrow opened up the flesh. Catching a glimpse of their prey, the monsters seemed to redouble their efforts. The gap was growing as each second passed.
“Men,” Commander Decole began in a low but powerful voice. “This castle is the last strong point in the city. If you are patriotic then know that it is your duty to protect our lord with your life. If you don’t care for nobility then remember that every man, woman and child who escaped the initial onslaught are huddled within these walls. If we fail here then everyone is lost. Fight hard and die with honour!”
The ensuing cheers were cut short when the grand door finally gave way. A stream of arrows decimated the front row of creatures but more piled in before a second volley could be launched. Gapon wasted no time in engaging with the brutes once more. His mace splashed blood across the walls with every swing. The monsters were bigger and stronger than a man but fighting against the Ghiboks had taught him and the other veterans how to compensate these disadvantages. Duck under an attack here, get up close so the superior range is meaningless and make every strike count.
The entrance hallway was wide but stacked furniture and statues narrowed the path of the demons. The defenders finally looked to be holding their ground when the tolling of a great bell rumbled through the stone of the structure to a frantic rhythm. Gapon started with surprise and almost lost his head as a result.
Decole looked just as taken aback. “The upper castle has been breached? How is that possible? Nothing has passed us,” gibbered the commander. His eyes were starting to take on a wild quality.
“They must have either destroyed a wall to gain entrance or have found one of the secret passages,” the lieutenant stated through the dying howls of a broken monster.
Decole managed to regain control of himself and leapt into action. “Captain Green, hold this position for as long as you can. When you fall back, make sure that the beasts are caught in every trap that we have. Lieutenant Gapon, you and your men are with me. Move out!”
The commander and Gapon raced along corridors and up the rough stone stairs to the upper ring of the spiral fortification. Twenty men ran with them. Taking so many men from the front door was a risk but neither man knew how bad the incursion would be.
The second level of the castle was grander, more decorated than the lower floor. It was designed as a refuge for nobility, a place of beauty and comfort, not as a truly defensive construct. The white stone was covered in coloured mosaics, paintings and tapestries while ornately carved tables, chairs and dressers filled out the airy open spaces.
Everything seemed eerily peaceful at first. Then they found the first body. It was a man in servant livery, although it was hard to tell from the blood soaked mess that was the body. The next room was littered with more butchered bodies, dotted with the occasional body of a monster.
Screams and shouts echoed from the adjacent hallway. The men ran through the unhinged door to be confronted by a scene of carnage. A group of around a dozen of the creatures were locked in combat with the lord’s elite bodyguards.
A shouted order from Commander Decole sent Gapon and the other guards charging into the enemy's’ rear. His mace slammed into the first monster’s armour-plated back, shattering its spine. The beast toppled and thrashed around on the tiled floor, knocking down the feet of one of its companions. As men closed in on both sides, the demons were trapped in a pincer and quickly fell when they tried to split their attacks. It was a brutal but short battle until all of the monsters were dead.
A shrill scream from behind the bodyguards caused everyone to rush to the ornate gold gilded door that led into the lord’s private chamber. The door was thrown open and the guard who moved to enter was sliced across the chest by a wicked dagger. A monster burst out from the room but was instantly cut down.
Men stormed into the room to see the lord cowering in the right hand corner with a long candlestick held in his hands as a weapon and more of the beasts piling out from a passageway that looked to usually be hidden behind a bookcase.
“Kill them! Quickly!” squealed the lord frantically. His thinning black hair was already slick with sweat. He waved the candlestick wildly to ward the beasts away despite them being nowhere near him. The two groups engaged in a vicious combat around the canopied bed that occupied the centre of the chamber. Gapon fought with instinct alone now. His muscles were strained and fatigue weighed heavily upon his mind.
More monsters poured through the tunnel in a constant stream that never ended. How they had even found the secret passage was beyond the lieutenant’s comprehension. The humans were outnumbered and outmatched.
There was a sudden series of loud bangs from outside that barely registered in Gapon’s mind. Then more beasts entered the room through the main doorway. Gapon turned to face this new threat. His entire body felt numb. He swung, dislocating the jaw of his target. A sword drew a vivid red line across his thigh, causing him to hiss in pain. His mace lashed out again but his wrist was caught in a clawed grasp. A fist drove itself into Gapon’s gut, knocking the wind out from his lungs. His grip loosened from the weapon and one of the beasts grabbed it from him. Before he could regain his stance, the mace was slammed into his ribs. He felt bones break. Gapon hit the ground hard. Through unfocused eyes he watched a darkened spear stab into Commander Decole’s throat. The lord was punched in the face, sending him sprawling in a heap.
Men died all around him. The pain in his chest was unbearable. He felt rough hands grab him and drag him to his feet. In his last seconds of consciousness, he watched the world spin as he was thrown over one of the beasts’ shoulders. Several other guards and the lord were picked up too.
As the pain grew too much to handle and unconsciousness began to sweep across his brain, Gapon caught a single sentence from the monsters, spoken in a rough, but understandable language.
“The city is ours. Take the captives to the forest with the others. Soon we march for Lanstiro.”